“Fun With Dick and Jane” was okay for starters and sissies, but I and my buddies craved the real Avant-garde children’s books like the one above. We didn’t own an Indian tent, a pedal car, or a Cocker Spaniel. We had BB guns, sharp knives, and German Shepherds, so our reading material was a bit more on the street smart side.
The neighborhood gang, around the 5th grade, discovered Mickey Spillane and True Crime while looking through our Daddy’s sock drawer; which, in turn, had an adverse effect on a few of the boys during their teenage years. Booger and Georgie wound up at the “Dope Farm” and Billy Roy did time for robbery of a Dime Store with a Mattel Fanner 50 cap gun. Being a child in the 1950s was a hell of a lot more fun than now.
A personal recount of my childhood Christmas memories.
Riding a ceiling-mounted “Rocket Train” to nowhere around the basement of a department store doesn’t seem like a Christmas thing, but that’s what thousands of other Texas kids and I did every year in the 1950s.
Leonard Brothers Department Store occupied two square blocks of downtown Fort Worth real estate and was known as the Southwest’s Macy’s. They offered everything the big shot stores in the East carried, and then, hundreds of items no retailer in their right mind would consider.
If you had a mind to, one could purchase a full-length mink coat with optional mink mittens, the latest women’s high-fashion clothing line from Paris France, an Italian cut-crystal vile of Elizabeth Taylors spit, James Dean’s signature hair tonic, Rock Hudson’s autographed wedding photos, a housebroken Llama, an aluminum fishing boat and motor, a new car, a pole barn, a nice two-story craftsman home “build it yourself kit” delivered to your lot, chickens, barb wire, hay, horses and cows, a 30-30 Winchester rifle, a 40 caliber autographed General George Custer Colt pistol, a bottle of good hootch and a Ford tractor. That’s about as Texas as it gets.
The Christmas season in downtown Fort Worth was internationally recognized for its innovative and wonderous decorations. The righteous city fathers figured the best way to out-do Dallas, a full-time effort, was to line every building with white lights from top to bottom and install large glowing decorations on every lamp pole, street light, and building façade available. If that didn’t make you “ooooh and ahhhh,” then you needed to go home and hide in a closet.
A week, or so, after Thanksgiving, my parents would take my sister and me downtown to see the decorations and visit the Leonard Brothers Department Store. Santa just happened to be in their basement taking advanced verbal orders from every crumb cruncher that could climb the stairs and plop on his lap.
My sister, in between screams and crying fits, always asked for the latest doll. She was scared senseless of “HO-HO,” but she somehow managed to spit out her order. Like clockwork, every year, I asked for a Daisy BB Gun with a year’s supply of stainless silver ammo ( for killing werewolves), a full-size Elliot Ness operable Thompson Sub Machine Gun, or an Army surplus Bazooka with real rockets and a long, razor-sharp Bowie knife encased in a fringed leather holster. It was a 1950s boy thing; weapons were what we longed for. How else could we defeat Santa Anna at the Alamo or win World War II, again? Our neighborhood may have sported the best-supplied “kid army” on the planet, and jolly old Santa was our secret arms dealer; parents non-the wiser. I finally got the BB Gun, but Santy was wise enough to not bring the other request.
Walking down the stairs to the store’s basement was the thrill I waited for all year. There, hanging above my head, was the beautiful red and silver tinseled sign, “Toy Land,” kid nirvana, and the Holy Grail all in one room. The smell of burned popcorn and stale chocolate candy wafted up the stairs, and I could hear the cheesy Christmas choir music and the sound the Rocket Train made as it glided along the ceiling-mounted rails. I almost pissed my jeans.
Hundreds, if not thousands of parents jostled down isles of toys, pushing, grabbing, snarling like a pack of wild dogs fighting for that last toy; the holiday spirit and common courtesy was alive and well. The queue of kids for the Rocket Train snaked through the basement like a soup line.
There, sitting on his mini-mountain top perch, sat old red-suited Santa Claus and his elfin apprentices, herding kids to his lap at break-neck speed. Each child got about fifteen-seconds, a black and white photograph, and then it was off the lap and down the steps. Kids were fast in those days; we memorized and practiced our list weeks before our visit for maximum impact. “Ho-Ho” had better be writing this stuff down. Kids don’t forget, squat.
Two Santa visits, four Rocket Train rides, and three popcorn bags later, our family unit departed Leonard’s for the new and improved “Leonard’s Christmas Tree Land,” located across the street from the main building. Thanks to the demolition of several winos infested abandoned buildings, the new lot was now the size of Rhode Island and held enough trees for every person and their dog in Texas.
Thousands, if not millions of fresh-cut trees awaited our choosing. Father, always the cheapskate, chose a sensible tree; not too big, not too small, yet full and fluffy with a lovely piney aroma. My sister and I pointed and danced like fools for the “pink flocked” tree in the tent, that cost the equivalent of a week’s salary. My parents enjoyed our cute antics. The sensible tree was secured to the top of our Nash Rambler station wagon, and we are homeward bound.
Pulling into our driveway, it was impossible to miss our neighbors extravagant holiday display. We had been away from home for 6 hours and returned to a full-blown holiday extravaganza that made our modest home look like a tobacco road share-croppers shack.
Our next-door neighbors, Mr. Mister and Mrs. Mister were the neighborhood gossip fodder. The couple moved from Southern California for his job. He, an aircraft-design engineer, and she, a former gopher girl at Paramount Studios. The Misters reeked new-found money and didn’t mind flaunting it. They drove tiny Italian sports cars and hired a guy to mow their lawn. His wife, Mrs. Mister, always had a Pall Mall ciggie in one hand and a frosty cocktail in the other. Father said she looked like a pretty Hollywood lady named Jane Mansfield, but Mother said she resembled a “gimlet-assed dime-store chippy.” I got the impression that the Misters were quite popular in the neighborhood.
Their Christmas display was pure Cecil B. DeMille. A life-size plywood sleigh, with Santa and his reindeer, covered the Mister’s roof, and 20 or more automated Elves and various holiday characters greeted passersby. Twinkling lights covered every bush and plant in the yard, and a large machine spat out thousands of bubbles that floated through the neighborhood. This was far more than Fort Worth was ready for.
The kill-shot was their enormous picture window that showcased a ceiling-high blue flocked tree bathed in color-changing lights. There, framed in the glow of their yuletide decor, sat Mr. and Mrs. Mister with their two poodles, Fred and Ginger, perched on their expensive modern sofa, sipping vermouth martinis like Hollywood royalty. This display of pompacious decadence didn’t go unnoticed by my parents.
Father hauled our puny tree into the living room and began unpacking lights for the decorating that would happen tomorrow evening. Mother hurried my sister and me off to bed. Visions of spying Elves, sugar plum pudding, and dangerous weapons danced in my head; Christmas was upon us.
Sometime after 10 PM, Father got hungry. Searching for sandwich fixings in the kitchen, he found a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. Then he found a fresh half gallon of Egg-Nog, which of course, he enjoyed with the bourbon. While searching for bread to make the ham sandwich, he found two “Lux Laundry Soap Flake” boxes, with a dish-towel in each one. Then by chance, he discovered the food coloring. This gave him an idea for our sad little tree.
I awoke in a start. The sun was shining in my face, which meant I was late for school. I ran into the living room and was stopped in my tracks.
Our formally green tree was now flocked in thick pink snow, as were the curtains, the fireplace mantel, two chairs, the coffee table, and my father, who lay on the couch, passed out, with a half-eaten ham sandwich on his chest. My Mother sat a few feet away, sipping her coffee and smoking a Winston; my Louisville slugger lay on her lap. I was reluctant to approach her, but I had to know.
I timidly put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Mom, is Dad going to be alright?” She took a sip of coffee and a drag from her ciggie and said, “well, for right now, he will be, but after he wakes up, who knows.”
This will be my 5th installment of childhood feel-good memories to take your mind off the present situation that greets us every morning. It always starts with the “we are all in this together ” the horror movie called “The Evil Bug From the Continent We can’t Name Because It Will Offend Someone And Make Them Cry Or Tear Down A Statue and God Help Us If That Misunderstood Sock Cap Wearing, Birkenstock stepping, Back Pack Toting, Green Haired, Pierced Eyebrow Unemployed Young Person Is Squished.” It’s a long title, but you get the message.
Childhood memories are like teeth, we all have them, good ones, and rotten ones. If you grew up in Texas in the 1950s, you will identify with some of mine, or maybe not.
I was nine-years-old before I dined in a Mexican restaurant. I knew they existed because my father and mother enjoyed them, bringing home little mints and matchbooks touting the restaurant’s name. I got the mints, my parents put the match books in a jar in the kitchen. I dreamed that one day, I might visit one.
In Texas, Mexican food is part of life. It’s one of the major food groups, and a boy cannot grow into a man of substance without it. Looking back, not having real Mexican food at that young age affected my evolution into a healthy young specimen. I harbored a nervous tick, I stuttered at times, and one leg was shorter than the other. All those maladies were cured, once I ate the real-stuff. The medicinal qualities of Mexican food is amazing.
I had for many years, eaten tacos at my cousin’s house and believed those to be authentic Mexican food. Sadly they were nowhere near the real deal. A few times over the summer, my cousin Jok’s mother, Berel, would cook tacos and invite the families for a feast. Cold Beer and Tacos. Pure Texas.
Berel would stand at her massive gas range, a large pot of ground beef, and a cauldron of boiling grease heating up the room to cooking temperature. She would drop that Taco in the witches cauldron, pull it out and toss it to the pack of wild African dogs sitting around her breakfast table. The dogs, of course, were my cousins and me. My poor mother would leave the room. She could not bear to see her son eat like a feral child: growling, biting, snarling as we consumed the tacos like they were a cooked Wildebeest. That is what I considered to be Mexican food and proper behavior when consuming it.
If you drove northwest of downtown Fort Worth on Jacksboro Highway, right before you come to the honkey tonks, you would find “Trashy Juanita’s” Mexican restaurant. Legendary for its Taco’s, frijoles, and cold Jax Beer. It was also legendary for other things that my father would not mention until I was older. Gambling, shooting dice, and in general questionable behavior was part of the after-hours entertainment. It wasn’t on Jacksboro Highway for the view.
Juanita Batista Carlita Rosanna Danna Esposito, the owner, was not a trashy woman, but a middle-aged Latin beauty with a bawdy laugh and sharp wit. It was the restaurant’s front yard adornments that earned the name. Offended at first, she finally accepted her crown and wore it proudly.
Two old rust-eaten pick-up trucks, one painted blue, and the other yellow sat abandoned in the front yard behind a cyclone fence. Pots of flowers decorated the fenders while the beds were overflowing with vines and small flowering trees. Fifty or more chickens strutted and pecked around the yard, giving the place a barnyard atmosphere. Some saw a work of art, while others called it a junkyard that happened to serve great food. In an interview in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Juanita claimed to be related to General Santa Anna, Pancho Villa, and the Cisco Kid, making her royalty in Mexico. The people of Fort Worth loved her, and she was considered a local character.
Trashy Juanita’s was my first introduction to real Mexican food, and all that comes with it.
My father sold a fiddle to a buddy, and with the profit, he took the whole fam-damly to dine at Trashy Juanita’s on the Fourth of July, 1958.
Juanita had gone “whole hog” on this holiday. American flags hung from the front porch and draped the cyclone fence. Two small children sat in the front yard shooting bottle rockets at the cars driving on Jacksboro Highway, and the chickens were wrapped in red-white-and-blue crepe paper streamers. Very patriotic, and also very redneck Texas.
A jovial Juanita escorted us to a large table next to the kitchen doorway. A waiter delivered tortillas, salsa and two Jax beers for my father and grandfather. Large, frosty glasses of sweet iced tea for the rest of us. There was no menu; it was Tacos or nothing at all.
The unfamiliar aroma of exotic food floated on a misty cloud from the kitchen, filling my young nostrils and activating my juvenile saliva glands, causing a torrent of spit to drip from my mouth onto the front of my new sear-sucker shirt. My mother cleaned me up and wrapped a napkin around my neck. I was ready; I had my eating clothes on. We decided that the family would dine on a medley of beef and chicken Tacos, frijoles and rice, and guacamole ala Juanita. The waiter rushed our order to the kitchen.
The evening was turning out great. My father was telling jokes, the Jax beer was flowing, and then a waiter walked past our table into the kitchen. Under each arm, was one of the patriotically wrapped chickens from the front yard. My grandfather must have forgotten that there were two young children at the table and remarked, ” there goes our Tacos, can’t get any fresher than that.”
His remark went unnoticed until I chimed in, asking my father, ” Dad, or we going to eat the pet chickens from the front yard?” He didn’t offer an answer. I got a big lump in my throat, and my eyes got misty. My sister whimpered and cried like a baby, and my grandmother, seeing her grandchildren in such distress, shed tears in support. Mother gave the two adult men the worst evil eye ever. The mood at the table went from happy to crappy in a minute or less. So much for a joyous family celebration. We might as well be eating Old Yeller for supper.
There was a ruckus in the kitchen, yelling, pots and pans clashing, and the two chickens, still wearing their streamers half-flew and half-ran through the dining room, and out the front door. The cook was right behind them but tripped over a man’s foot, knocking himself out as he hit the floor.
Juanita, standing in the middle of the dining room, announced that there would only be beef Tacos tonight. The two doomed birds had escaped the pan, and my sister and I were happy again. My father breathed a sigh of relief that the night was saved, and my grandfather bent down and polished the new scuff on his size 12 wingtip.
An old friend of mine passed a while back. Though we have been out of touch for many years, he always occupied a special spot in my memory. I have used him, or bits and pieces of his colorful life in my short stories. His name was Junior Edify. No first name, or namesake, just, Junior.
In 1957, he opened a coffee house in downtown Fort Worth Texas. History will lead you to believe that “The Cellar” was the first, but the “Hip Hereford” beat them by a full year.
Junior was meant to be a cowboy. It was his lineage and destiny, but he rebelled against the code of the west and his family, becoming a club owner, a poet and a beatnik type of fellow. He said that sitting on a sweaty saddle and smelling cow farts all day was not how he envisioned his life.
Opening night was Halloween, 1957. Junior hires two winos to help run the door and do odd jobs. They were reluctant to give him their birth names, so he christens them Wino 1 and Wino 2. As long as Junior paid them and kept the Mogen David flowing, they were good to go. The following is an excerpt from the unfinished story.
Around 7:15, Wino 2 informs Junior that the first performer has arrived and takes the stage for the introduction. He steps to the mic and, in that pleasant voice, says, “Ladies and gents, please welcome to the stage, Mr. Blind Jelly-roll Jackson and his nurse Carpathia.”
An ancient black man with hair as white as south Texas cotton, holding a guitar as old as himself is helped to the stage by a prim female nurse dressed in a starched white uniform. The old man wears a red smoking jacket, a silver ascot and black trousers. Dark sunglasses and a white cane complete his ensemble. The old fellow is as blind as Helen Keller.
The nurse gently seats the old gentleman in a chair provided by Wino 1 and lowers the large microphone to a height between his face and his guitar. She then stands to the side of the stage, just out of the spotlight. Blind Jelly Roll starts strumming his guitar like he’s hammering a ten-penny nail. Thick, viscous down strokes with note bending riffs in between. His frail body rocks with every note he coaxes out of his tortured instrument. He leans into the mic and sings, “We’s gonna have us a mess o’ greens tonight…haw..haw..haw…haw…gonna wash her down with some cold Schlitz beer..haw..haw..haw..gonna visit ma woman out on Jacksboro way…gonna get my hambone greased”. This was Texas blues at its best.
On cue, his nurse steps into the spotlight, extract a shiny Marine Band harmonica from her pocket, and cuts loose on a sixteen bar mouth-harp romp. Her ruby-red lips attack that “hornica” like a ten-year-old eating a Fat Stock Show corndog. The crowd loves it. They dig it. When Blind Jelly Roll finishes his song, Wino 2 passes a small basket through the group for tips. Jelly Roll and his nurse take their kitty and depart. He’s due back at the old folk’s home before midnight.
Pictured for your educational pleasure is a sweet little dog with a strange name. “Graphon Chardonnay” is what’s known in 2020 as a “Hipster Companion Service Dog.” I’m sure little Graphon would rather be out pissing on trees and digging holes in flower beds than wearing a beard and leather jacket. Dogs look odd in human clothing, and they look alien when they sport the same beard as their owner.
While strolling the “hot new neighborhood” on West 7th street a few weeks ago, my wife and I stopped into a small outdoor café for lunch. It was one of those sunny February days where it wants to be pleasant, but you still need a coat if you dine outside. A teaser day, us Texans call it.
A nice looking couple sat down next to us with their small dog. They were dressed in expensive “Fort Worth Hip” to the tee. The young man had a formidable beard, a ” Stallone” pork pie hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses and skinny jeans. The woman was dressed similarly but without facial hair. These aren’t your poor retro-hippies, these Kats have dough, good jobs in IT and live in an expensive high rise overlooking the Trinity River. They most likely drive a Tesla or a hybrid Beemer.
The two diners immediately immersed themselves in their Apple I Phones. Hipsters are required to use Apple products only: Sorry Samsung and HTC.
I felt sorry for the little pooch, he didn’t have a phone of his own or even a bowl of water, so I asked a kind waitstaff to bring the wee fellow a dog bowel of H2O. When his bowl of water arrived, the man gasped and removed the water dish before the parched dog could catch a drink.
” Graphon does not drink regular water” he shrieked. ” He’s chlorine intolerant.”
Of course, I apologized for not knowing the dog was allergic to water, so I asked his father, what does Graphon drink?
The young woman looked up from her I Phone and smugly replied “Graphon Chardonnay drinks only Starbucks decaffeinated coffee, “Chateau La Pew” white wine and natural spring water from Tibet. He is also vegan and has an IQ of 165.” Well, holy hot-shit, I am impressed that this furball with two names is smarter than most of us humans; myself included.
I had already figured out these two were vegans, so when our juicy hamburgers arrived, we made a big deal of our meal, loudly commenting on every greasy bite we took. The two gave us the ” hope you die” look.
In my meat-eating frenzy, I accidentally knocked a French fry off my plate. The little genius, Graphon, caught it before it hit the ground and gobbled it down. His father screamed, grabbed the dog and began the “Heimlich maneuver ” until the dog coughed up the slimy fry.
” That fry is cooked in animal fats, are you trying to murder my dog! Graphon could die if he ingests anything other than his special veggies” he shouted. The woman was crying and having a small breakdown after witnessing her vegan dog eating the evil French fry.
The young couple was so traumatized, they took little Graphon Chardonnay and departed the patio. I got the last laugh. I slipped the pooch a nice bite of my burger while they weren’t looking. I’m pretty sure he is going to have some righteous gas.
The asphalt parking lot is so hot it’s melting the rubber soles of my PF Flyer “tinny” shoes to the pavement. It’s July of 1957, and there are at least one hundred kids, including our neighborhood coterie of twenty-five standing on that lot, waiting to see our television idols, Mickey Mud Turtle and Amanda Opossum.
Piggly Wiggly Food’s hired the puppet duo from Channel 11, for the grand opening of their newest grocery store on Berry Street. With the following the show had developed, the folks at Piggley are betting on a full house, because every kid in Fort Worth, Texas, wanted to meet Mickey and Amanda up close and in person.
Without an introduction, the puppets popped up onto the stage of their television theater and launched into their shtick. The jokes are age-appropriate and corny. Birthdays are shouted out and then more jokes, but with no cartoons to kill time, the felt and cardboard critters are out of material and are bombing like the Hiroshima fat boy.
The Mud Turtle launched into a commercial for Piggly Wiggly, and the Opossum began her’s for Buster Brown Shoes, over-riding Mickey, which in turn made him mad, and he grabbed a small bat with his mouth and popped Amanda Opossum a good one. The kids loved it. Watching the two puppets fight is better than cartoons, any day, hands down.
I feel a tug on my shirt, and realize my mother is dragging me into the grocery store. As we pass the back of the puppet theater, a gust of wind blows the side curtain open and there, in living color is two adults, sitting on low stools with their hands stuffed up the butts of our beloved stars. Kids are good at fooling themselves into believing things that aren’t real. I know they are cheesy, cardboard, and fabric puppets, but destroying my imagination is serious stuff.
Mortified and traumatized from the scene I witnessed, my mother drags me through the air-conditioned store as she completes her shopping. There is no sympathy or coddling from this Cherokee woman. She mumbles something about puppets being stupid, and I feel tears forming on my cheeks. I may never recover from this destruction of my childhood.
Leaving the store, we pass the stage, and a man and woman are putting the puppets into their wooden boxes and autographing glossy postcards of the critters. I still have mine.
If you were a kid in the 1950s, then you knew who Captain Kangeroo and his sidekick Mr. Greenjeans were. Their television show was broadcast five days a week in glorious black and white and viewed by millions of kids on tiny television screens. ” Don’t sit too close to that TV, you’ll go blind.” That was the stern warning from every mother, and here we are today, all wearing glasses, or blind. How did you expect us to see the Captain and Greenjeans on an 8-inch screen?
The burning question we all had was, did Mr. Greenjeans wear “green jeans?” We were kids, with no color sets, it made us crazy. Was this man green?
A few months ago, I was taking a short -cut through a Fort Worth neighborhood to avoid road construction and noticed a weirdly dressed man using a hand pump sprayer to paint his yard a deep shade of kelly green. I stopped and watched as he worked his way from the curb to the house. Long even strokes, coating the brown grass to imitate spring’s favorite color. It was then I noticed his house was green, the cars in the driveway were green, his clothes and skin were green, and a small dog sitting on the porch was also green. What the hell? The man saw me staring and motioned me over.
I parked my car and walked up to the fellow, feeling a bit foolish for interrupting the work of a stranger. I introduced myself and complimented him on his handy work. He thanked me and extended his hand to shake and said, “names Levi, Levi Greenjeans, nice to meet you.”
” That’s an unusual name, sir. The only time I’ve heard that last name was on Captian Kangaroo, and that was sixty years ago,” I said.
The green fellow laughed and say’s, ” that’s the family name. Mr. Greenjeans was my pop. My sister and I grew up in a green world, so this is pretty natural for us. Dad’s been fertilizer for a good many years now, so it’s up to me to carry on the family brand.” I agreed, he looked pretty good for an old green guy.
I didn’t want to pry or be too forward, but I asked, ” Sir, what might the family brand be?”
“Call me Levi,” he said. ” You know that song ” The Jolly Green Giant?, I wrote it and collect mucho royalties. That Tom Jones song about green-green grass of home wrote that one too. The Green Giant food brand, that’s mine, also, copyright infringement made them pay up. Home Depot has a Greenjeans color named after Dad, I get change from that and a shiny penny from Youtube for the Captain Kangaroo videos.” This dude has turned green into green cash.
I am impressed and honored to be in the presence of one of the famous Greenjeans family, but now is the chance to get the answers to my childhood questions. I am afraid of coming off like a six-year-old Duffus, but I asked, ” did your dad wear green jeans and did he have a green face, and was the captain a nice man, and why did he have a big mustache, and did your dad really have a farm? There, I spat it out, and I am an idiot.
Levi chuckled and said, ” dad wore green jeans, and his face was green from stage makeup. The captain, bless his dead heart, was not too friendly. He wore a mustache because, on the first live show, a little kid threw a Coke bottle at him and split his lip, the stash hid the scar, and that’s why he disliked kids. He carried a small cattle prod under his sleeve, and if the kids got to close, he would shock them. Pretty funny stuff to see them jump. And the final answer is yes, dad had a farm and grew veggies and raised prize-winning Llamas. Recently, my sister Denim planted forty acres of butt-kicking pot that we will sell in our “Mr. Greenjeans Apothacary Co-op in Denver.”
I thanked Levi for his kindness and started to leave when he stopped me. Extracting a green sharpie from his pocket, he signed his name on the front of my white Eddie Bauer Polo shirt. ” hang on to that shirt brother, it’ll be worth some cash one day.”